Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hold the Applause in Iraq

NYT Editorial

There's just one major problem with the national unity cabinet presented over the weekend by Iraq's new prime minister. On the most important national issue — reforming Iraq's corrupt, brutal and highly partisan security forces — no unity has yet been achieved.

To some Iraqi politicians, it appears, the prospect of civil war seems less terrifying than the prospect of compromise over who will control the vital security ministries: defense, interior and national security. Among them, these ministries control the Army, the police and the prisons.

For now, these three ministries will be run by stopgap acting leaders. If broadly acceptable and competent ministers can be agreed on in the next few days, there is still some realistic chance that the new government can start turning around the awful mess it has inherited.

Without such a deal, there will be very little to show for the hopes of the million Iraqis who risked their lives to vote for a peaceful and democratic future. Or for the efforts of the tens of thousands of American troops who risked theirs to make that vote possible.

The core of the problem lies with the Interior Ministry and the police, as a Times investigative series this week by Michael Moss, David Rohde and Kirk Semple has made painfully clear. Early American efforts to train a professional police force were understaffed and underfinanced by the Pentagon. Even as Iraq dissolved into chaos and insurgency, Washington continued to shortchange these efforts.

Meanwhile, ad hoc Iraqi responses grew increasingly brutal and indiscriminate. The worst abuses occurred under the outgoing interior minister, Bayan Jabr, a former officer from a hard-line Shiite militia.

He ordered that militant Shiite commandos be recruited into the police in such large numbers that some units came to resemble sectarian militias. Sunni prisoners have been routinely tortured. Uniformed police death squads are reported to have dragged Sunni Arab men from their homes and mutilated and massacred them. Sectarian Shiite death squads have been allowed to operate with impunity.

It will now take a strong, reform-minded new interior minister, not a politically brokered caretaker, to root out these abuses. A thoroughgoing reform of the security services is needed to assure all Iraqis — Sunni, Shiite, Kurd or whatever — that they will be protected as they go about their everyday lives.

That is the one achievement on which all else now depends: Iraq's remaining hopes for constructing a stable and democratic society, and thus President Bush's remaining hopes for extricating American troops with something positive left behind.

Unless ordinary Iraqis from all communities are convinced that this new government is committed to ensuring their physical security — a feeling that certainly does not exist today — the endless shuffling and reshuffling of cabinet posts among political party chieftains will be all but irrelevant.

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